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A photo of the University of Texas at Austin's campus.

University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas at Austin

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled 6 to 2 that the University of Texas and the Texas State University systems can revoke degrees that graduates received through academic misconduct.

“The only difference between expelling a current student for academic misconduct and revoking the degree of a former student for the exact same academic misconduct is one of timing,” Debra Lehrmann, the court’s senior justice, wrote on the majority’s behalf. “That distinction is immaterial to the issue presented and erroneously hinges the university’s bare authority to address its students’ academic misconduct on when that misconduct is discovered.”

Two graduates, referred to by the initials K.E. and S.O. in the ruling, sued the universities after their advisers reported that the graduates earned their doctorates through fraud in their dissertations and the universities attempted to revoke their degrees. The advisers said they learned about the alleged fraud while working with the graduates after they graduated, the ruling says—S.O.’s adviser retracted his own article that had used S.O.’s data after another graduate student’s experiments indicated some of the data were inaccurate.

K.E.’s adviser “found inconsistencies in K.E.’s dissertation research data that led the adviser to believe K.E. had manipulated the data,” while S.O.’s adviser “brought a complaint against her for academic misconduct relating to some of the data reported in her dissertation,” the ruling says.

“Indeed, if timing were as significant as K.E. and S.O. suggest, we struggle to determine when a university passes the point of no return,” Lehrmann wrote in the ruling dated March 31 but released Wednesday. “Is it at the graduation ceremony? When the diploma memorializing the conferral of the degree is printed? When the last box is checked on an administrative form indicating that all requirements have been satisfied? When a doctoral student completes the defense of her dissertation?”

”A degree is not merely a piece of paper; it is a ‘university’s certification to the world at large of the recipient’s educational achievement and fulfillment of the institution’s standards,’” she wrote, quoting a previous opinion.

Lehrmann wrote that “the university officials do not claim, and for good reason, that they may take such action against K.E., S.O., or any other former student based on conduct occurring after a degree is conferred. Instead, they argue that they may rescind a degree upon determining that it was not earned—and thus should not have been awarded—in the first place.”

She wrote, “While precedent on the specific issue presented is nonexistent in Texas and sparse elsewhere, courts applying similarly worded grants of (state legislative or state constitutional) authority (in other states) have uniformly determined that public universities have degree-revocation power.” She noted Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.

Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justice John Phillip Devine.

“Many will be surprised to learn from the court’s decision that they hold their college degrees not permanently, as their own property, but contingently, only so long as their alma maters continue to believe they should have received them,” Blacklock wrote. “I would have thought that after I graduated and left the University of Texas, the school retained no authority whatsoever over me or my property. I can find no such power over the rights of graduates mentioned in the voluminous Texas statutes governing universities. Universities certainly have abundant statutory authority to manage their own internal affairs, but they have no power to manage the affairs of their graduates. If the Legislature wanted state universities to possess the extraordinary power to unilaterally adjudicate the rights of graduates, surely it would say so. It has not.”

David Sergi, an attorney for S.O., said his client would appeal.

“We agree with the dissent,” said Sergi. “We think the decision is flawed and we will be filing a motion for rehearing because, you know, the court has turned your degree into a revocable license.”

Neither S.O. nor K.E. currently has a revoked degree, but the university systems could now move forward using the Supreme Court’s authority. The university systems declined to comment on the ruling Wednesday.

The Supreme Court majority did say graduates must be afforded due process in degree-revocation proceedings.

“Frankly, I think we’d win in the disciplinary hearing,” Sergi said of possible future action by the University of Texas. “My client has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”

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